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Henry Eamonn Connor

(1922–2016)

CNZM, MSc (Hons), DSc, FRSNZ

4 August 1922 – 26 July 2016

Henry Connor was an outstanding New Zealand plant scientist who made a large contribution to the breeding systems and biosystematics of indigenous grasses and significantly advanced understanding of grasses internationally.

Henry was born in Wellington, and attended St Patrick’s College Wellington. On leaving school he joined the Plant Research Bureau in 1940 as a clerical cadet, then as a technical trainee for Botany Division, DSIR in 1942. He attended Victoria University College where he completed his BSc as a part-time student in 1948 and his MSc in Botany with 1st Class Honours in 1950. His formal academic career was completed with the award of a Doctor of Science degree from University of Canterbury in 1978. For the first part of his more than 60-year career he was a researcher and administrator at Botany Division DSIR and for the second, almost as lengthy phase, a visiting fellow at the Geography Department, Canterbury University.

Henry’s potential was recognised by the first director of Botany Division, DSIR, Dr H.H. Allen, who encouraged him to specialise in the indigenous grasses. Henry began work on the ecology, taxonomy and reproductive systems of indigenous grasses, and agrostology - as he often referred to it – was to become the focus of his career. Henry’s scientific work began at a critical time for the study of biosystematics. In New Zealand the pioneering phase was over: classical herbarium-based taxonomy, which was largely dependent on dried specimens and macroscopic characters, was being supplemented by more wide-ranging studies that emphasised study of the live plants in the wild and in experimental gardens and included a much broader range of characters including chemical constituents of the plant, chromosomes, wood anatomy and pollen. A shift had already begun towards cladistics approaches which, in the last years of the twentieth century, underpinned the theoretical foundations of molecular systematics.

Rushes, sedges and grasses have always presented problems for biosystematics world-wide, as they have variable, often obscure characters, and many closely related species. A key problem in New Zealand was how to define the large number of confusing entities in the grasses. Could these be characterised as true biological species or were they merely geographic segregates better thought of as races? Some perhaps were the polyglot result of hybridisation, and processes such as apomixis, and self-fertilisation. Part of the problem then was finding reliable taxonomic characters and part was determining how the distribution of those characters is affected by the various breeding systems. Henry thus took a two-pronged approach, putting considerable effort into grass morphology, growth patterns and chemistry to tie down diagnostic characters, and backed this up with an in-depth study of breeding systems.

His early work was herculean. To take an example: in his work on Festuca he collected seeds from 69 sites throughout the South Island; up to 100 plants from each site were grown in the Lincoln experimental gardens; 10 individuals were selected from each collection and several sections made of a leaf from each and a camera lucida drawing made of the arrangement of the sclerenchymatous tissue, and he thus systematically examined more than 5000 plants. His exploration of the chemotaxonomy of Chionochloa snow tussocks was just as thorough encompassing all 22 species and analysis of the leaf waxes from more than 230 collections. He undertook systematic cross-fertilisation trials of New Zealand grasses collected from all around the country in the extensive experimental gardens at Botany Division Headquarters in Lincoln.

As a result of this extensive work in the gardens including many hundreds of inter-specific crosses backed by other observations in the wild, he obtained a detailed overview of the genetics and breeding systems of the native grasses and the extent to which they are capable of gene exchange. Some idea of the immense scope of this work is given by his experimental investigation of the genetics of male sterility in Cortaderia which involved the cultivation of more than 30,000 plants (Connor 1973). In the process he became a world-leading expert in grass breeding systems.

It was natural that, with his expertise in grasses and their ecology, and the ongoing scientific investigation of grasslands by the DSIR, Henry would be drawn into the broader environmental and conservation aspects of grasslands. He was a member of an expert group which in 1954 reported on the high altitude snow tussock grasslands of the South Island (Tussock Grassland Research Committee 1954). Following this investigation, in the 1960s Henry took on an extensive ecological survey of the eastern tussock grasslands in his usual thorough way, analysing the floristic composition of tussock grassland communities at 410 sites in Canterbury. He was able to reuse his meticulously collected records later in the 1990s when the topic became of conservation interest to report on the status of Hieracium weed invasion in the 1960s (Connor 1992). These records continue to inform studies of change in these grasslands. Henry’s work on the eastern grasslands and keen interest in their maintenance made him a natural choice as a DSIR science representative on a number of committees and boards including the North Canterbury Nassella Tussock Board (1952-1976) North Canterbury Catchment Board (1956-1980) and Mount Cook National Park Board (1959-1981).

This vast amount of work on grasses provided the ideal platform for what was one of his major achievements, his contribution to a flora of the New Zealand grasses. The need for a comprehensive biosystematics treatment of the grasses had been clear for a long time: in 1980, he joined forces with his colleague Dr Elizabeth Edgar in a flora writing partnership that spanned 26 years, 21 publications and extended well into their retirements, culminating with Flora of New Zealand V Grasses (Edgar and Connor 2000).

Another major scientific interest was poisonous plants in New Zealand which had been assigned as one of his economic botany responsibilities at the beginning of his career. He took this task very seriously for, as he noted in the 1977 edition of his book The poisonous plants in New Zealand, ‘…there are few more excruciating ways of expiring than to eat a misidentification.’ While he did no primary scientific work on poisonous plants, his 25 publications on the topic were a major contribution to a better understanding of the risks these plants pose to humans and agriculture. In 2009 he made his last contribution to the field with a popular guide Plants that Poison (Connor and Fountain 2009).

In 1974, Henry became Assistant-Director of Botany Division, and head of the taxonomy section and in 1980 - 1982 he was Director for two and a half years. Despite being a difficult time for science funding, Henry increased staff numbers and added to the regional station network with offices in Kaikohe and Rotorua to service the increased demand for botanical surveys and assessments.

Henry’s retirement at 40 years of service with Botany Division in 1982 at the relatively young age of 60, did not end his scientific contribution and in fact may have revitalised it by freeing him from management and formal public service responsibilities. He became a visiting fellow of the Centre for Resource Management at the University of Canterbury and in 1992 an honorary member of the Geography Department. Nearly half of his total of 170 science publications were a product of his retirement years.

Henry was extremely generous with his knowledge, shared his extensive data freely, and was happy to spend time with others and share his insights. With his wide literary interests, sharp intelligence and ready wit, he could be an entertaining and enlightening companion. Nevertheless, it is not unfair to Henry to say that, as with so many scientists, people management was not his strength. He could be cutting, critical and poor at explaining the tough decisions that the financial circumstances of the division forced on him. At times he spoke in an oblique, gnomic style which could easily lead to him being misinterpreted. However, during his many years at the University of Canterbury, free of science management, Henry flourished. He took full part in the life becoming a much loved senior member of the Geography Department, mentoring PhD students, contributing to seminars, social occasions, sharing his enthusiasm for wine, whisky and good food and, as one of his colleagues there has commented ‘building bridges’ between staff members.

No account of Henry would be complete without some reference to his writing style. His flowing bold handwriting, always with an ink pen, on close examination usually proved to be nearly unreadable. At Botany Division and later at Landcare Research, there was always on hand a staff member who was his official graphologist and cryptographer. In prefaces, occasional pieces and presentations, Henry often adopted a learned vocabulary employing an allusive, complex prose sprinkled with Latin quotes. Whether this was for the sake of elegance, to share his extensive knowledge of English and Latin literature, or simply to amuse is hard to say, but probably all three.

Henry was well recognised for his services to botany and the nation. In 1983, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and in 2000 he was awarded, along with Elizabeth Edgar, the prestigious Hutton Medal for contributions to the documentation and botanical classification of New Zealand flora. He was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002 for services to botany.

Henry died suddenly on 26 July 2016 at Rannerdale Veterans Care, aged 93 years. Henry is survived by his wife Helen, and he was father and father-in-law of Kate, Rachel, Fran and Alan, and Dennis and Terri .

Matt McGlone and Ilse Breitwieser

Landcare Research, Lincoln

 

Reference list

 

Connor H (1992) Hawkweeds, Hieracium spp., in tussock grasslands of Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1960s N Z J Bot 30:247-261

Connor HE (1973) Breeding systems in Cortaderia (Gramineae) Evolution 27:663-678 doi:10.2307/2407199

Connor HE (1977) The poisonous plants in New Zealand 2nd Revised edn. Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Wellington

Connor HE, Fountain JS (2009) Plants that poison: a New Zealand guide. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln

Edgar E, Connor HE (2000) Flora of New Zealand-Vol. V: Gramineae. Manaaki Whenua Press, Landcare Research,

Tussock Grassland Research Committee (1954) The high-altitude tussock-grassland in South Island, New Zealand New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 36A:335-369

 

Obituary was lodged on website on 31 May 2017.